Wherever you go in the world, you find street food. It comes in different forms and styles. But there are certain common factors about street food: it’s the food of the locals; the cheap eats served in minimalist settings that have sustained people for generations.
The World Street Food Congress
The first-ever World Street Food Congress, held in Singapore during June, was an exciting chance for street food vendors from different countries to celebrate each other’s food cultures, to explore ways to bring their food together into a sort of unified “cuisine” and, of course, to eat.
More than 37 teams of street food vendors from 10 countries in South America, Asia and Europe convened to show off their humble yet world-class fare. Fryers, ovens, grills and a variety of other cooking devices they’d brought with them gave rise to steam, smoke and sizzling sounds that pulled people to their stalls, set up at Singapore’s F1 Pit Building.
New world travellers and their food
Getting to Singapore was no easy task for some of the cooks. Several had no passports, never having travelled abroad. Some didn’t even have birth certificates.
The cooks at Bhaskar Mysore Indian prepared their immensely popular tamarind rice and garlic curry chicken for ten days beforehand. A couple of them travelled for 39 hours from their villages in India, first on foot, then by bus and finally by train to Delhi, where they caught their first plane ever.
But all the vendors’ efforts were all justified when they saw customers take the first bite, whether it was the kue pancong (grilled sweet salty coconut cakes) from Indonesia, the banh xeo and banh khot made by Phan Rang 38 from Vietnam, or the tom thep – Vietnamese prawns dipped in sweet and spicy sauce and then baked and served with crispy, sticky rice cakes, laksa leaves and fiery chilli sauce.
Asia was well represented in this international food foray, but the Americas were also here in full glory. Two vendors representing Mexico brought some of the most popular street food to the jamboree. At Tacombi, Patricia and her crew served up classic Ensenada fish tacos –, the handmade corn tortillas were drizzled with a touch of her super-secret chipotle sauce and topped with fish, perfectly crispy on the outside and flaky white within, and a touch of pickled cabbage.
La Guerrerense, proclaimed by Newsweek and Anthony Bourdain as one of the 101 best places to eat in the world, loudly served their world-famous Baja seafood tostadas. Señora Sabina assembled a mind-boggling mountain of fresh diced prawns, scallops and octopus, topped with crab salad dripping with her Mexican chilli salsa and adorned with buttery avocado slices – all on a homemade tostada. It was a celebration of flavours, colour and texture. ¡ Viva Mexico!
From the United States came a flight of cooks, some from Portland, Oregon, representing the nation’s new style of street eats: food carts. Their food was at once modern and timeless, and drew large crowds seeking The People’s Pig’s succulent rolled pork sandwich, the Swamp Shack’s crisp fried prawns, drizzled with a spicy sauce and nestled in a bowl of buttery grits from the Deep South, and EuroTrash’sbattered soft shell crabs – so golden and alluring, bedded between soft buns. Crazy good!
The Meyers Køkken stall was created by world-renowned Claus Meyer, owner and executive chef of Noma in Copenhagen, recently rated the top restaurant in the world. Danish food was put under the spotlight with the pork sandwich; a slow-roasted slab of crispy-skinned pork, sliced generously and served with apples, pickled cucumber, pork crackling, spicy slaw and sauce in a Danish bun. The combination was juicy, filled with zing and completely mesmerising. The queue was equally impressive.
Of course, the world of street food includes sweets. A highlight was Nam Bo Sticky Banana Rice’s namesake gift from Vietnam – a banana enveloped in sticky rice, then wrapped in banana leaves before being grilled over wood charcoal and served in a pool of spiced coconut cream.
Moving the mantle forward
But the World Street Food Congress was not just a food jamboree; it was also the first-ever gathering of street food advocates to address the notion of supporting a globally organised world of street food. The brainchild of this is Singapore’s own food guru, KF Seetoh, who aims to create a street food forum to preserve, professionalise and seek new opportunities in the street food arena.
“The majority of people in developing countries today still depend on food prepared by individual cooks in simple outdoor or rustic kitchens,” KF explained. But as societies modernise and the hawker legends get older, there are fewer people to pass the street food heritage on to. “Working a food stall is tough, solitary labour; hardly the favoured path in today’s youthful, social network-driven society,” said KF.
So how does one take it to the next level, to organise the millions of vendors so they have a career path and their food has a future? To do this, KF has formed a World Street Food Council, comprised of the best minds in food-related disciplines around the world. We’re talking chefs, writers, F&B developers, food and lifestyle celebrities and innovative social thinkers who will further the cause of a unified street food world in ways that have never before been imagined. Many convened at the World Street Food Congress for dialogue sessions about the future of street food.
One such council member is renowned chef, writer and food traveller Anthony Bourdain, who came to the event and described his vision of a world “devoid of artificial fast food chains and low quality food, replaced by hygienic, authentic street food vendors serving up traditional flavours from their cultures as well as new, innovative foods that are cutting-edge.”
Others from the world over also gave their perspectives o, street food, what it is and how to preserve it as an industry. And between the important people who support an organising effort, the crowds that enjoyed the excellent food, and the proud smiling faces of the vendors making everyone happy, it looks like a better world of street food is off to a great start.